Much Ado About Nothing

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Themes and Colors
Love and Masquerade Theme Icon
Courtship, Wit, and Warfare Theme Icon
Language, Perception and Reality Theme Icon
Marriage, Shame and Freedom Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Much Ado About Nothing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Courtship, Wit, and Warfare Theme Icon

Much Ado About Nothing constantly compares the social world—masquerade balls, witty banter, romance and courtship—with the military world. War of wit and love are compared to real wars in a metaphor that extends through every part of the play. The rivalry of Benedick and Beatrice is called a “merry war,” and the language they use with and about each other is almost always military: as when Benedick complains that “[Beatrice] speaks poniards, and every word stabs.” Romance, too, is made military. The arrows of Cupid are frequently mentioned, and the schemes which the characters play on each other to accomplish their romantic goals are similar to military operations. Like generals, the characters execute careful strategies and tricks.

Don John and Don Pedro, enemies in the war before the play begins, face off again on the field of social life: one schemes to ruin a marriage, another to create one. Benedick and Beatrice are “ambushed,” by their friends into eavesdropping on staged conversations. Borachio stations Margaret as a “decoy,” in Hero’s window. The “merry war,” of Much Ado About Nothing ends just like the real war that comes before the beginning of the play: everyone has a happy ending. At the very beginning, Leonato says that “A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers”—in this, the end of a good comedy resembles the end of a good war.

Courtship, Wit, and Warfare ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Courtship, Wit, and Warfare appears in each scene of Much Ado About Nothing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Courtship, Wit, and Warfare Quotes in Much Ado About Nothing

Below you will find the important quotes in Much Ado About Nothing related to the theme of Courtship, Wit, and Warfare.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

“A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers.”

Related Characters: Leonato (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Leonato, Governor of Messina, speaks this line near the beginning of the play. He and a messenger are discussing a recent battle, saying that Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedict, all men from different countries, have emerged victorious together with very few lives lost. Leonato comments that a victory is doubly valuable when the winner comes home without losing any men.

This military victory which precedes the play is, in a sense, the only real event in its plot; what unfolds on stage is a series of misunderstandings, disguises, mistaken identities, and "nothings" that lead to the marriages at the end of the play.

These lines also introduce the theme of warfare, which is used as the metaphorical language of courtship during the play. The victory in the military war will be ultimately echoed in the conclusion of the 'war of wits' and the "victories" on the battlefield of love.

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“There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

Related Characters: Leonato (speaker), Benedick, Beatrice
Page Number: 1.1.59-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Leonato's niece Beatrice asks the messenger about Benedick, one of Don Pedro's officers. She argues with the messenger and makes fun of Benedick, and in the process displays her ability with language, her wit, and her sharp sense of humor. In the line here, occurring just after Beatrice's interaction with the messenger, Leonato explains the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick in military terms: they are engaged in "a kind of merry war;" there is "a skirmish of wit between them."

Thus Leonato frames courtship (even if Beatrice and Benedick don't yet realize that they are courting) as battle, an idea that is very common in renaissance love poetry, and that will animate the rest of this play. It's worth noting, though, that while here the war of love is described as being "merry," the events of the play will show that like war it can bring victory and joy but also pain, despair, and even death. 

Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

“I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.”

Related Characters: Don John (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.28-30
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene begins, like many Shakespearean scenes, with one character asking another why he is so sad. Conrade asks Don John why he is so melancholy, to which Don John first responds with the astrological response that he is born under Saturn and cannot hide what he really is, and then with this quote.

In the quote, Don John states his belief that he cannot hide, much less change, his true interior, and that he is a villain. The quote turns out to be true, as Don John goes on to act villainously for no good reason through the rest of the play. 

Don John would rather be himself and be hated than act falsely and pretend to be happy or kind. Thus he deems himself a "plain-dealing villain" in great contrast to the whimsical, love-struck characters who are constantly pretending and playing tricks. Soon after this proclamation Don John learns about his brother Don Pedro's plan with Claudio to woo Hero in disguise; Don John immediately decides to attempt to mess up his brother's plan and prevent the courtship of Hero. He does this not out of desire to court Hero himself. Instead, he just wants to make everyone else as unhappy as he is.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me; and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”

Related Characters: Beatrice (speaker)
Related Symbols: Beards
Page Number: 2.1.36-39
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene opens with Antonio, Leonato, Beatrice, and Hero discussing Don John's attitude and comparing him with Benedick. Beatrice jokes that Don John talks too little and Benedick talks too much, saying that a good husband would be somewhere in the middle. After this joke Leonato tells Beatrice to be careful so that she can find a husband, at which point Beatrice says that she's happy that she doesn't have one, especially because she hates beards.

Thus begins a discussion here about beards, in which Leonato suggests Beatrice marry a beard-less man. Her response, given in the quote, is that someone with a beard is more than a youth, and someone with no beard is less than a man (boyish). She doesn't like bearded men, but beardless men are merely boys who cannot handle her. Beards become more and more important in the play as symbols of manliness.

Note also that this discussion has an extra level of irony because, in Shakespearean times, female parts were played by beard-less youths. When a young actor's beard came in, it was an indication that he could begin to play adult male parts instead of boys and women on stage. The original speaker of this line would have been a young man without a beard dressed as a woman.

“Speak low, if you speak love.”

Related Characters: Don Pedro (speaker), Hero
Page Number: 2.1.97
Explanation and Analysis:

After Beatrice tells Hero that courtship is like a dance, the partygoers all arrive wearing masks. Don Pedro, pretending to be Claudio, immediately approaches and begins dancing with her. The two exchange some flirtations, before Don Pedro offers this romantic line: "Speak low, if you speak love." After this line, the pair moves aside and begin to whisper.

Don Pedro's words seem to imply that courtship should be secretive and done in whispers, which is ironic since he is pretending to be Claudio – it's a really secret courtship, with secrets kept even from Hero. However, while there is a romance to the secrecy of courtship, the play will also show how such secrecy can be destructive and leads to jealousy in general, and men's fear of being cuckolded more specifically, that can be particularly dangerous for women. Even in this scene, Claudio worries that Don Pedro is actually wooing Hero for himself. Later, Don John will make it appear that Hero has secretly been seeing other men, which causes Claudio to abandon Hero. So, just to make it clear: here Claudio is part of a scheme in which another man woos Hero for him, but later he immediately condemns Hero for allegedly seeing other men. The "secrecy" of love therefore seems to create a space not just for romance but also for masculine anxiety about love, and perhaps also misogyny toward women. 

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

“…of this matter
Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by hearsay.”

Related Characters: Hero (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.23-24
Explanation and Analysis:

Most of the characters are now conspiring to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love. Here, Hero sends Margaret to get Beatrice and to say that she has overheard Hero and Ursula gossiping. Hero then tells Ursula that they must get Beatrice to overhear them talking about how Benedick "is suck in love with Beatrice." By overhearing this, they hope, Beatrice will then fall in love with Benedick. Hero claims that it is moments of gossip like this one that comprise Cupid's arrows, which "only [wound] by hearsay."

Hero's theory of how love works seems to be generally upheld by the events of the play, as Benedick and Beatrice do end up falling in love, but the theory also applies more generally to information and the way that characters view the world, in this play and in most Shakespearean comedies. Errors, misunderstandings, mistaken identities, gossip, and lies become the substance of reality for comedic characters; confusion abounds until the play concludes and the thick layers of mistakes and untruths are unwoven.

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

“Even she: Leonato’s Hero, your Hero, every man’s Hero.”

Related Characters: Don John (speaker), Claudio
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 3.2.99-100
Explanation and Analysis:

Having failed to stop the courtship and engagement between Claudio and Hero, Don John now seeks to stop their impending marriage. To do so, he plans to put together a fake scene of Hero and a lover in the window to convince Claudio that his fiancee is being unfaithful. When Don John says that she has been disloyal, Claudio clarifies with, "who, Hero?" to which Don John responds with the quote, "Even she."

The end of the sentence is devastatingly simple: "Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero." By mentioning Leonato, Don John makes the claim specific to Hero herself, by mentioning Claudio he makes the claim personal to Claudio, and with "every man's Hero" he delivers the harsh accusation that many men have been with her. Claudio and Don Pedro remain unconvinced, but decide to shame Hero together if they find out that the claims are true.

The simplicity of Don John's speech is well aligned with his tactics. While other characters (like Hero herself) stage false conversations to be overheard, Don John stages a false image to be seen. His deception relies on the eyes instead of ears; he insists that they witness visually. This insistence might be loosely related to Othello's demand for "ocular proof" when he believes his wife is unfaithful in Othello. Perhaps love can be generated by one sense alone, either sight or hearing (or overhearing exactly what someone wants to you hear), but infidelity and heartbreak need to be verified with proof – the senses must be checked against one another. 

Meanwhile, note how quickly Don Pedro and Claudio decide to shame Hero if they think she has been unfaithful. Love in the play turns quickly to misogynistic rage, again suggesting just how anxious men are with the idea of love, language, and fear of their wive's possible infidelity.

It is also worth noting that the word "Nothing" was also used in Shakespearean times to refer to a woman's sexual parts. And so the title of the play refers to the fact that the plot of the play involves much ado about sex, about virginity, and about all the misunderstandings ("nothings") about such "nothings."

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

“O! that I were a man for his sake, or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules, that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.”

Related Characters: Beatrice (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.331-338
Explanation and Analysis:

The Friar has concocted a plan in which Hero will pretend to be dead while Leonato gets to the bottom of her accusation, the hope being that it will make Claudio even more thrilled to marry her when he finds out she is actually alive (though modern audiences might object that Hero might not want to marry Claudio after he mistrusted and then shamed her). Now, Beatrice and Benedick are alone on stage; the pair has just admitted they are in love with each other, and Beatrice is upset by what has happened to Hero. Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio for her.

When Benedick refuses, Beatrice speaks the lines quoted. She wishes that she were a man so that she could kill Claudio herself, or that Benedick would be a man and do it. But, she laments, classical manliness has faded, and devolved into only language. Valor, she says, has become nothing more than lying and false oaths. Since she cannot be a man simply because of her wish to become one, she concludes that she'll die as a woman because of her grief. Beatrice's criticism of manliness and the prevalence of language over action speaks to the theme of the play, in which nothing really happens but talk and falsity. It also inspires Benedick to agree to kill Claudio.

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

“I was not born under a rhyming planet.”

Related Characters: Benedick (speaker)
Page Number: 5.2.40-41
Explanation and Analysis:

Benedick speaks this line in a soliloquy after he has sent Margaret to get Beatrice. He sings a little song, attempting to find a way to communicate his feelings to Beatrice, and laments his poor singing ability. Because he wasn't "born under a rhyming planet," meaning he doesn't have any natural ability rhyme or write poetry, he says he can only come up with bad rhymes.

First, Benedick's reference to the planet under which he was born echoes Don John's assertion earlier in the play that he is evil because he was born under the planet Saturn. In each case, these men argue that their natures are determined by the stars; that they couldn't change or learn even if they wanted to. They proclaim, therefore, that their true natures are set no matter the perception of them. 

Meanwhile, Benedick's struggle with writing poetry speaks to the limitations of language brought up by the play, the way that it frustrates and confuses. (Benedick's struggle with rhyming is also ironic, since it is written by Shakespeare, a master poet.) At the same time, Benedick has been engaging in a war of wit and language play with Beatrice for much of the play, so it's not clear that he actually does have limitations with language. Perhaps, instead, he is making excuses for finding it difficult to express his love through language, which would then be another indication that love, like a toothache, is more profound, more of the body, than language can evoke.